The Importance of Film Editing Demonstrated by the Bad Editing of Major Films: Bohemian Rhapsody, Suicide Squad & More

It’s one of cin­e­ma’s great­est ironies that edit­ing can make or break a film, but few movie­go­ers under­stand what an edi­tor actu­al­ly does. Edit­ing involves tak­ing shots and assem­bling them in the right order, yes, but what makes an order — all the tran­si­tions from moment to moment and scene to scene — “right”? Even if we can’t explain good edit­ing, we know bad edit­ing when we see it, and even more so when when we feel it. The hard-to-pin-down sen­sa­tion of a movie being “off” or “wrong” often comes out of incom­pe­tent edit­ing, and by break­ing down the bad edit­ing in a vari­ety of recent pic­tures, these three videos throw into con­trast what it takes for edit­ing to be good.

Most of the nine “Movies that Were Ruined by Real­ly Bad Edit­ing” in the Loop­er video at the top of the post are part of high-pro­file fran­chis­es. Giv­en the size of their bud­gets and the impor­tance of their box-office per­for­mance, you might think such films would­n’t per­mit tech­ni­cal slop­pi­ness of any kind. Yet in Alien: Covenant every­thing hap­pens in an order that kills the dra­mat­ic ten­sion; the chaot­ic Tak­en 3, “a severe case of death by a thou­sand cin­e­mat­ic cuts,” plays out “at the speed any oth­er movie would run if you acci­den­tal­ly hit the fast-for­ward but­ton sev­er­al times”; Trans­form­ers: Age of Extinc­tion goes heavy on the wrong scenes and “treats its robot aliens as a sub­plot”; and Sui­cide Squad pro­vides an exam­ple of “a stu­dio pub­licly adver­tis­ing a movie as one thing, pan­ick­ing, then com­plete­ly reshap­ing the same film all inside of one fran­tic mar­ket­ing blitz.”

“Edit­ing is going down the crap­per these days,” says Fold­ing Ideas host Dan Olson in his in-depth exam­i­na­tion of Sui­cide Squad’s incom­pe­tent cut­ting. “The edit­ing was shock­ing­ly awful in every way,” he says, turn­ing it into a kind of neg­a­tive show­case of the edi­tor’s art: “I would seri­ous­ly advise any­one with an inter­est in the art of cin­e­mat­ic edit­ing to do their own full autop­sy to see just how much went wrong and plain old does­n’t work.” Olson points to exam­ples of Sui­cide Squad’s often inex­plic­a­ble choic­es, such as fill­ing the first half of the film with hyper­ki­net­ic char­ac­ter intro­duc­tions that play more like trail­ers, devel­op­ing char­ac­ters only to sud­den­ly drop them, los­ing track of the phys­i­cal loca­tions of char­ac­ters, and repeat­ed­ly abus­ing the Kuleshov Effect in a way that feels like the “cin­e­mat­ic equiv­a­lent of putting the emphasis on the wrong syllable.”

But then, it would have been more of a sur­prise for a crit­i­cal dis­as­ter like Sui­cide Squad to have been well-edit­ed. What about the Fred­die Mer­cury biopic Bohemi­an Rhap­sody, which won an Acad­e­my Award specif­i­cal­ly for its edit­ing? Its recep­tion of that par­tic­u­lar Oscar is inter­est­ing, says video essay­ist Thomas Flight, “because the movie con­tains sev­er­al scenes that are mas­ter class­es in poor edit­ing.” In one offend­ing sequence, “many of the cuts are unmo­ti­vat­ed,” which mean that the edi­tor made them for no appar­ent rea­son, at least none serv­ing sto­ry or the dra­ma. Oth­ers “ignore spa­tial con­ti­nu­ity,” which makes it dif­fi­cult or impos­si­ble for the audi­ence to under­stand who and what is sup­posed to be where. And “the pace is sim­ply too fast,” mean­ing that the lengths of the shots are too short for the action: edit­ing that suits a rock con­cert does­n’t suit a con­ver­sa­tion.

Even view­ers who oth­er­wise enjoyed Bohemi­an Rhap­sody will have sensed some­thing the mat­ter with the cuts in the scene Flight high­lights. But nobody could have a worse reac­tion to it than John Ottman, the man who edit­ed the film, and whose work has been cred­it­ed with mak­ing (rather than fur­ther break­ing) the trou­bled pro­duc­tion. As men­tioned in March here on Open Cul­ture, that par­tic­u­lar scene was cut not by Ottman but direc­tor Dex­ter Fletch­er, who came in to take Bohemi­an Rhap­sody’s reins after the depar­ture of Bryan Singer. “When­ev­er I see it, I want to put a bag over my head,” Ottman told the Wash­ing­ton Post. Most movie­go­ers don’t see edit­ing when it’s good, only when it’s bad — but when it’s espe­cial­ly bad, it makes edi­tors them­selves long for invis­i­bil­i­ty.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Dark Knight: Anato­my of a Flawed Action Scene

Alfred Hitchcock’s 7‑Minute Mas­ter Class on Film Edit­ing

Hitch­cock on the Filmmaker’s Essen­tial Tool: The Kuleshov Effect

A Visu­al Intro­duc­tion to Sovi­et Mon­tage The­o­ry: A Rev­o­lu­tion in Film­mak­ing

Bohemi­an Rhap­sody’s Bad Edit­ing: A Break­down

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.


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